Hours: Daily, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; dim sum served Saturdays and Sundays, 11:30 to 3 p.m.
Price Range: Dinner entrees range from $4.95 to $8.95; sepcial family dinners, $7.95 per person; "authentic Chinese dinners," $9.95 per person.
Atmosphere: Slightly elegant, but not to the point of requiring a tie and jacket.
Credit Cards: Visa, Master Charge, American Express.
Reservations: Recommended on weekends, at dinnertime.
Special facilities: Booster chairs; free parking after 5:30 in parking building next to First Virginia Bank of Fort Myer Drive; wheelchairs a problem after 6 p.m., when the elevator stope working.
One of our daughters pouted all the way to China Garden, saying, "I don't like Chinese food. You know I hate Chinese food." When we arrived, her face lit up and she said, "Oh, I didn't know you meant this place!"
She, who refuses to allow shrimp toast to cross her lips, considers this second-story Cantonese restaurant a stand-out among local eateries. And for the rest of the family, who require frequent fixes of Oreintal food, the China Garden in Rosslyn is a perfect place to chase the blahs away. It is particular treat to bring the family here for weekend dim sum, or Chinese tea lunch.
One would not describe China Garden as a haven for the nursery set. The tables are covered with white clots: the waiters, though polite and competent, are not particularly warm or reassuring, and the clientele -- much of it dressed in busness suits at dinnertime -- does no look as if it would welcome children shrieking past the table en route to the wishing well at the entrance.
Prices at China Garden are on the high side for Chinese food -- the more so if, like us, you order more than you should because it's so frustrating to limit your order. But whereas I might think twice about bringing the kids to a pricey French restaurant, children are an advantage at a place like China Garden, where dishes are share family style, and where the presence of two additional mouths allows you to sample more dishes than you reasonably could as a couple. On our last visit, our family of four spent $48.83, tip included, but only because we indulged ourselves wildly, on the pretext of exploring the menu. On other evenings we've spent $35, and of course, dim sum is cheaper still.
Following family custom, the children allowed us to pick all four entrees, trusting that we'd order at least one dish they like, and requiring only that we order the holy of holies: Chinese white rice, which comes with the meal and which they would behappy eating three times a day.
We ordered two old stand-bys: crystal shrimp natural ($7.75) and shredded chicken with hot chili and black bean sauce($6.25), two of the most popular items on the menu. The secret of the shrimp dish (served beautifully on a bed of slivers of raw carrots, scallions and ginger) is a sauce so delicate that it preserves the integrity of the excellent, fresh jumbo shrimp, a generous portion cooked to just the right degree and no more.
The chicken dish is something grown-ups should surely try. Out children have slightly mixed feelings about it: they love it, but it's spicier than they are happy with. This, plus the fact that it arrives on a bed of spicy cooked green peppers, would probably cancel any interest most children might otherwise have in the dish. On the whole, though, dishes at this Cantonese restaurant are not heavily spiced.
We had very pleasant memories of the Chinese broccoli with oyster sauce ($4.95), a demonstration of how broccoli stems and leaves can be rendered at least as interesting as the flowerettes when well prepared. This time, however, we tried the vegetable combination "lo-hon" style ($5.95), which was a mistake with the chilren, who decided to hate it as soon as they saw odd ingredients such as sliced lotus root, which never reached smelling distance of their mouths.
Being more venturesome than usual, we also had order the sliced whelk and squids sauteed with Chinese kale ($7.25), a frankly seafood dish that contained enough squishy and squeaky things to put the children off totally, and which unaccountably arrived containing about 15 scallops and not quite enough squid. The kale was superb, and even with two of our entrees considered indeible by the girls, we generally had a good meal.
China Garden's most famous sweet is its fried ice cream ($1.50), which is fun to watch: a scoop of ice cream surrounded by batter and deep-fried is brought to the table, where the waiter pours rum and chocolate sauce over it and sets the golden ball aflame, to everyone's delight. There is no question this should be a delicious confection, but we found it a major disappointment. Still, it is fun to order at least one.
We were far happier with the banana fritters ($.75 for two half slices), and one grown-up was quite content with the odd taste and texture of Chinese lychee fruit ($.75).
Lots of families think of Chinese food when they're tired and hungry and have a carful of children and don't want to spend much.China Garden isn't that kind of Chinese restaurant, but it's a nice treat for children who are real fans of good Chinese food.